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Few things make women feel more insecure than wondering whether they smell fresh down there, especially as a guy is about to give pleasure of the oral variety. As he wanders south, it’s one thing to realize that you haven’t gotten a wax in a while—something the guy you’re with isn’t likely to notice in the dark. But if you’re feeling vulnerable and stressing about whether you’re emitting a funky odor, you can pretty much bet that the mood is ruined.
The sad fact is that so many women are self-conscious about their vaginal scent when there’s really nothing to be embarrassed about. “I think women have unrealistic expectations about their scent that are similar to the unrealistic expectations we have about body size,” says Sara Gottfried, M.D., founder and medical director of The Gottfried Center for Integrative Medicine in Oakland, Calif., and author of “The Hormone Cure.” “There’s so much shame around the normal range of what women smell like. I think of the advances we’ve made with women’s rights and the benefits we’ve had from the women’s movement, but we’re also still stuck with this mindset that women are expected to be nice, pretty and for their lady parts to smell really good, like some fake scent. Like you’re going to smell like a gardenia. And that’s just going to make you miserable because that’s not the normal human scent.”
The thing is, vaginas aren’t supposed to smell like fragrant flowers—despite the plethora of products marketed to women that may convince you that the scent of a rose garden should be wafting from your private parts at all times. On the other hand, vaginas aren’t supposed to smell “fishy” either—that mean barb that boys lob at girls to make them feel bad in junior high school.
What’s normal appears to be somewhere in between those two extremes. Some women have no vaginal scent whatsoever, while others have a slight scent that isn’t unpleasant. What’s more, your scent can change over the course of the month. The key is to know what’s normal for you—so you’ll know there’s nothing to worry about, as well as when there’s a health problem at play.
What Influences Your Scent
Everything from having sex and working out to where you are in your menstrual cycle can influence your below-the-belt aroma.
“There are certain times during the menstrual cycle when you are more likely to have a change in the scent,” notes Dr. Gottfried. “Many women notice after having their periods that there is a different odor. That scent relates to the pH in the vagina.”
Normally, the pH of the vagina is below 4.7—that means it’s naturally on the acidic side of the scale. But when you have your period or have sex, that alters your vaginal pH. For example, menstrual blood has a pH of 7.4, according to Gottfried, which is basic, so it causes your vaginal pH to rise and become less acidic. “That can also give you a change of scent that can make it smell a little fishy,” she says. “Also, when air hits menstrual blood, it has a particular scent to it.”
Adds Gottfried: “A lot of women notice a change in the scent after having sex. Semen is really basic—it has a pH of around 8—so when you have sex it changes the pH in the vagina to the basic side of things.”
How to Check Your Vagina’s pH
Curious about what your own vagina’s pH level is? You can test it at home. “Get pH papers, which cost about eight bucks, at your local drugstore,” suggests Gottfried. “You can use these pH papers to see if your vagina has a pH of 4 today—if so, you’re good.” Or you can buy a ready-made kit, such as Vagisil Screening Kit ($17.49). To test your vaginal pH, hold a piece of pH paper against the wall of your vagina for a few seconds, then compare the color that appears on the pH paper to the color on the chart that comes with the test kit. Find the color on the chart that best matches the color on the pH paper. The number on the chart that corresponds to the matching color is your vaginal pH number.
If your pH levels are less acidic than they should be (higher than 4.7) or you suspect you have a vaginal infection, such as an itchy yeast infection, you can try some tricks to bring things back into balance. First, use yogurt. Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., author of “The Yale Guide to Women’s Reproductive Health: From Menarche to Menopause, recommends soaking a tampon in plain yogurt that contains live lactobacillus cultures (it needs to say this on the label), aka the good guys. Notes Dr. Minkin: “Are the [good bacterial] strains in the yogurt slightly different than the strains in the vagina? Yes, they are. But they can help. Any kind of lactobacilli is probably going to help you, and it’s cheaper than medication. The yogurt is very soothing, and it may help get rid of your infection.”
If the yogurt doesn’t help or if the thought of inserting a tampon doused with yogurt grosses you out (we understand), you can try RepHresh—an over-the-counter vaginal gel that helps your vagina maintain a balanced pH when used once every three days. If both the yogurt and RepHresh don’t improve the situation, see your gyno for an evaluation.
Telltale Signs of an Odor-Inducing Problem
Can’t tell whether your vaginal scent is normal or indicates a problem? Check your underwear. “The main signals [of infection] are a substantially increased discharge,” notes Gottfried. “White discharge, maybe a little yellow, that I can live with. But when it’s grey and combined with an intense fishy odor that you can smell across the room or if the discharge is neon green or yellow—that’s not good. If [your vagina is] itchy or you have pain, those are also signs of something abnormal.”
When a vagina’s pH balance is thrown off—namely, when there’s an increase in bad bacteria and a decrease in the amount of good bacteria—that can lead to infections, including yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (or BV). While yeast infections don’t usually affect vaginal scent, BV certainly does. BV, which is the most common vaginal infection in women of childbearing age, can be triggered by having sex with a new partner or by douching—both of which can throw off the vagina’s delicate bacterial balance. The result? A strong, fishy odor, especially post-coital, and white or grey discharge. Some women also experience burning during urination and itching around the outside of the vagina (the vulva) with BV, which makes it easy to mistake it for a yeast infection. In some cases, BV disappears on its own, but it’s smart to get checked out by your gynecologist, who can prescribe antibiotics to send BV and its embarrassing odor packing.
Another type of vaginal infection that’s associated with a foul odor is trichomoniasis, or trich. “It’s along the lines of a stinky fish smell like BV, but it’s worse,” explains Minkin, “and it’s associated with a yellowish or greenish discharge.” The STD, which is caused by an infection with a parasite, is sexually transmitted and treatable with a single dose of prescription antibiotics. To prevent passing the infection back and forth, “if you’re diagnosed with trich, you should make sure every one of your partners gets treated,” recommends Dr. Minkin.
How to Keep Your Vagina Clean and Balanced
Here’s the good news: You don’t need to do much. “The vagina is a self-cleaning oven,” notes Gottfried. Meaning, it naturally excretes discharge that escorts germs and bacteria out of your body. So the vagina does a bang up job of keeping itself clean without your needing to intervene, thank you very much.
In fact, problems arise when you interfere with a perfectly good system—namely, by douching (a no-no). Douching messes with the vagina’s delicate balance of bacteria, according to Minkin. “Lactobacilli are the good guys—you want an acidic vagina,” she says. “If you start douching out those guys, you’re being counterproductive. You may be getting rid of the bad guys but also the good guys, which are helping to protect you.”
Douching also propels bacteria in the wrong direction. “You don't want to send secretions, full of bacteria, in the opposite direction with douching,” notes Gottfried. Douching predisposes you to develop bacterial vaginosis and that stinky fish odor you were trying to avoid in the first place. What’s more, douching is also associated with some serious health issues, including an increased risk of cervical cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease. Got all that?
And skip the talc if you think that’s your ticket to absorbing odor and wetness: Research suggests that talc increases the risk of invasive ovarian cancer.
In general, when it comes to cleaning the outside of your vagina, some warm water and gentle soap, such as Dove White or Neutrogena soap, does the job, according to Minkin. “The less soap, the better,” she says.
If you’ve just come from a sweaty session at the gym (or between the sheets) and want to freshen up externally, or if you’re on the go and don’t have time to shower, you can use a pH-balanced, alcohol-free wipe, such as Summer’s Eve cleansing cloths.
And finally, steer clear of synthetic underwear, which can make you sweat and traps in odor. Instead, Gottfried suggests opting for cotton panties, which gives your hard-working vagina some much-appreciated breathing room.
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